Elliott shoved Hamlin up the race track in turns three and four, ultimately pinching Hamlin into the outside wall on the frontstretch and leaving the No. 11 FedEx Toyota with a major tire rub.
Four laps later, the right front tire blew and sent Hamlin head-long into the turn three wall, ending his title chances as Elliott moved closer and closer to the front of the field.
With 31 laps to go, the green flag flew and chaos ensued as Erik Jones missed a shift, stacking up the field and sending Brad Keselowski free-falling through the field as Elliott charged forward.
He passed Martin Truex Jr. for second less than a lap after the restart and powered around Kenseth to assume command with 29 to go. From there, Elliott drove out to nearly a full second’s lead and appeared ready to avenge his Martinsville misfortune and catapult into the Championship 4.
But the long runs were Elliott’s Achilles heel all day, allowing Kenseth to slowly close back in.
With 12 to go, Kenseth was back on Elliott’s bumper and two laps later, he used almost the exact same inside sweep that Elliott took the lead with to take it back, never trailing again and breaking Elliott’s heart in the process.
The Dawsonville, Ga. young gun came home second for the seventh time in his career Sunday, but this one was easily the most heartbreaking, as Kenseth’s pass cost him a shot to race for his first title.
“Man, this is such a bummer,” Elliott lamented. “We were so, so close to having another shot next week. I can’t say enough for my team, because we fought really, really hard today and gave ourselves a chance. Our car was really fast on those short runs after a caution and after guys had cycles on tires. It fired off really well on the short run all day, then it got tight as the run went on and the rubber was being laid down.”
“I was praying I could hit lapped traffic before it started going away, but it just didn’t happen. … I was telling my guys, ‘I’ll get it right someday.’ We’ve had so many good opportunities and we just have to close.”
Truex came home third for his career-best finish at Phoenix, followed by Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick.
Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola and Dale Earnhardt Jr. completed the top 10.
After a dismal qualifying effort and floundering outside the top-10 almost all day, Brad Keselowski limped his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford home in 16th, but it was enough to secure his place in the Championship 4 by 19 points over Hamlin.
He joins Truex, Harvick and Busch as the four drivers who will compete for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship during next Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM).
Full race results can be viewed on the next page…